“You and your friends are dead.”
With that stark and blunt “game over” message, you are dutifully informed of the demise of all six of the camp counselors whose job it was to keep the children of Camp Crystal Lake safe and secure. It’s also very likely that many of camp’s children have perished by the time you get this message. That’s par for the course when playing a video game targeted towards children that is based on a movie series starring a hockey-mask wearing serial killer that stalks and brutally murders any and all who cross his path. The movie franchise I’m speaking of, is of course “Friday the 13th”, which also happens to be the name of the LJN published, Atlus developed video game that hacked its way onto the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1989.
By 1989, the “Friday the 13th” franchise was already a bit long in the tooth with seven films having been released between 1980-1988 and an eighth, subtitled “Jason Takes Manhattan”, set to release that summer. A video game featuring the film’s maniacal and relentless killer, Jason Voorhees, had not yet found its way onto home consoles. There was a computer game, also named “Friday the 13th”, released in 1985 but that left very little mark, so for many gamers, this NES effort was their first opportunity to face off against Jason in a life or death battle on the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake.
So what did NES owners and horror movie fans get when they purchased “Friday the 13th”? In terms of first impressions, the box art is a mess, which may have turned off even the most dedicated of slasher flick fans at the time. There is a picture of a grimy looking Jason holding an ax in a raised position, implying he is about to crack open some poor promiscuous teenager’s skull (frightening imagery so far), flanked by the grotesque color scheme of a sunset exploding over an ugly, grainy green and blue background. Not a good start.
Upon firing up the game, you get a nice image of the iconic hockey mask and a knife going through the eye hole as the intro screen. Shortly after getting started, you are shown a map screen of Camp Crystal Lake, complete with cabins, a lake (naturally), forests and a cave. There are also the six smiling faces of the camp counselors, three male, three female, all completely screwed. In addition, there is an icon of a smiling child with the number fifteen next to it. That’s how many kids you need to try to keep alive throughout the course of the game. I’m guessing all of the goofy smiles plastered on these poor souls’ faces was a deliberate means of easing younger players into the game. It would have been more realistic to simply have all the counselors and kids faces frozen in expressions of terror or various stages of screaming and crying but Atlus chose to go for a different feel. Bummer. The goal is to survive long enough to get through three day/night cycles and defeat Jason three times. Yeah, I don’t like the sound of this at all.
After you choose which counselor you start the game with, you’re literally off and running around the camp on a side scrolling screen, battling zombies and bats, jumping around indiscriminately in order to get lighters, weapons and vitamins (for health restoration) to pop up randomly while battling more zombies (so, so many zombies), all to a cheery and repetitive tune. Before long, you’ll hear a distress signal, indicating that Jason is attacking one of the counselors located in a cabin, naturally very far away from where you currently are. The countdown is on and you must reach the flashing cabin on the map screen before the timer runs out, either by using your current character, or by switching over to a closer counselor from the map screen. Unless you’ve found a knife by randomly jumping around, you’ll take Jason on that first time armed only with rocks. Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen some of the “Friday the 13th” movies but I don’t recall too many instances where a rock throwing teen managed to fend off Jason but clearly this isn’t the movies and you’ll soon figure that out when you encounter Jason for the very first time.
Once inside a cabin, you’re “treated” to an ugly and boring box of a structure with no furnishings to speak of and presented in a less than ideal first person perspective. The counselor you’re there to save will greet you just inside the entrance and after they provide you a perfunctory “thank you” for risking your life for them instead of just getting the f$*k out of dodge, you begin moving around the cabin in an effort to find Jason. This first person cabin aspect of “Friday the 13th” is a bit clumsy and not very well designed. Since the rooms all look the same, it’s easy to forget where you’ve already been and where you need to go (a flaw in the game design that becomes more egregious later). Once you reach the room in the cabin that Jason is hiding in, he introduces himself through a jarring change of music. You may then be wondering who that purple clad beast is, but then you see it’s wearing the tell-tale hockey mask and you think to yourself “dear god, why does Jason look like homicidal version of Barney the dinosaur?!?!” This is a question without an answer and it’s clearly one of “Friday the 13th’s” most ridiculous design/graphical choices. I know that the NES technical specs only allowed for a certain number of colors on screen at any given time, but I have to think there was a better option available to the developers than purple. Nevertheless, get used to Jason being a large, hulking, killer that happens to wear a purple jump suit. It’s OK to laugh.
After you get past the comical image of Jason clothed in head to toe purple with his turquoise mask and hands, you realize that you must quickly dodge his attacks while countering with your own weapon, whether that is rocks, or knives, or axes, among others, in order to stay alive. There is no retreating at this point. Jason’s health bar is noted in the lower left corner of the screen. If you hit him enough times without losing your own life first, he retreats but not before he can utter the ominous message, “You win….for now.” Wait, Jason doesn’t talk! He’s a mute monster that speaks only with his hands and whatever weapons he may be holding in them. Another strike. Nevertheless, if he kills your counselor before he can chat your ear off, that dead counselor is now missing from the map screen and is no longer an option to help with the rest of the game. Rest in peace you brave, perpetually smiling teenager.
The rest of the game is played as follows. You move around the campground, killing or avoiding monsters and collecting weapons and passing them on to various other counselors while battling, and hopefully beating, Jason each time he shows up with the intent to off a fellow counselor or any of the kids. The game advances from day to dusk to night and the goal is to deplete Jason’s life meter once per day/night cycle while keeping at least one kid and one counselor alive. Do this for three consecutive day/night cycles and you can defeat Jason once and for all. Once and for all is relative since we know that Jason is an indestructible killing machine. Regardless of the hue of his clothing.
Besides housing the counselors and kids, the cabins also contain clues as to where to go in order to find important items or weapons in the game, as well as containing unlit fireplaces. Lighting all of the fireplaces around the campground will give you access to a torch, which is one of the strongest weapons in defeating Jason. There are also important items hidden in the labyrinthine forests and caves. It is NOT recommended to spend a lot of time aimlessly wandering these portions of the game as they are designed to frustrate and bewilder players and are prone to instigating rage quitting. Unfortunately, none of the clues you find in the cabins help you figure out where to go once you’re in the forests or caves so you’ll be relegated to simple trial and error techniques.
Inside the caves, if you manage to stumble across it, is a room where Jason’s mother, Pamela’s, severed head lies. It floats around the room in a pattern and if you can defeat it, additional weapons or items are yours for the taking. One of these items is Pamela’s sweater, made famous through Betsy Palmer’s portrayal of Jason’s mother in the original “Friday the 13th”. Another key item that can be earned in the caverns after defeating Jason’s mother is the pitchfork. The game’s manual describes the pitchfork as “The one weapon that can really harm Jason. Use it to finish him off once and for all.” Clearly, this is the key weapon that must be earned after defeating Pamela’s head on the third day.
While the torch and pitchfork are super strong weapons in the fight against Jason and his evil minions, the ax is another powerful weapon that you will actually procure much earlier in the game than the pitchfork and torch. Therefore, making the ax a more useful and effective weapon as you play through the game while Jason becomes stronger and stronger.
The six camp counselors have different strengths and weaknesses but Mark possesses the important characteristics of tremendous speed and incredible leaping ability. His leaping ability allows you to simply jump over enemies as actually taking the time to kill them doesn’t do anything for you in terms of increased ability or obtaining items. If so inclined, you can avoid all the enemies, except for Jason and his mother of course, and still defeat the game.
Mark’s speed allows you to most efficiently visit all the counselors, equipping them with better weapons that he finds. This provides each counselor a better chance at defeating Jason when he inevitably attacks them or if they happen to be in closer proximity to the kids when he goes after them in the cabin along the lake. Also, Mark’s speed allows you to quickly get to all the cabins with fireplaces that need lighting in order to obtain the torch. Using Mark is the key to success….do not let him die!
Sometimes Jason will pop up in the sidescrolling outdoors portions of the game, which can be a fun surprise the first time it happens. However, you get an idea when this is going to occur a split second before it does because the screen will stop and it no longer allows you to advance to the next screen a moment before Jason appears. Throw whatever weapon you have at him enough times, and he will retreat. Because of this “tell”, the real scariest moment in the game occurs when you’re in the canoe, paddling towards the cabins that house the children. Just like in the original “Friday the 13th”, when Alice is laying there in her canoe, thankful that she’s the sole survivor of the worst day of her life, Jason comes bursting out of the water to give us the jump scare of all jump scares. That’s what sometimes will happen on Crystal Lake, only in 8-bit graphical glory.
So here’s the thing about “Friday the 13th” for the NES. It’s a very difficult and frustrating game. I more or less laid out the strategy for playing and winning but I can’t emphasize enough how soul crushing it is to be cluelessly wandering around the forests and caves while the incessant bleating of the “Jason’s about to murder me!” alarm severs your nerves like the muscle and tissue that used to keep Pamela Voorhees’ head squarely on her shoulders. To top it off, you’re forced to fight Jason often and he’s not an easy fight until you get the timing down to dodge his attacks. Sometimes Jason attacks with his hands, which means it takes more hits to end your life, but later he’ll attack you with machetes and axes and a few hits from those deadly weapons and your name will be added to the already exhaustive list of counselors he’s dispatched over the years.
Without the benefit of a walk through that can assist you in saving time and sanity in the forests and caves, this game becomes nearly unplayable in its difficulty. In 1989, there were obviously no easily obtainable cheats or walk throughs that could make this game more fun or to at least provide some guidance on where to go. The clues scattered around the cabins, while semi-informative, do not give you the level of detail necessary to truly open the game up from a playability standpoint. “Friday the 13th” found its way onto numerous “Worst Game” lists as a result of its confusing and difficult gameplay and I can somewhat see why. Maybe a purple Jason and grating music had something to do with that too, but I have played much worse games on the NES than “Friday the 13th”. Is it for everyone? Not likely as it is still very hard and takes quite a bit of time to master. For many, the amount of time needed to put into “Friday the 13th” may not be warranted based on what you get out of it.
Atlus and LJN may have screwed up the look and sound of their “Friday the 13th” effort but I do applaud them for trying to create a unique game that added recognizable aspects from the films (e.g. Camp Crystal Lake, Pamela’s sweater). The intent was to create a survival horror game that gave the player the frantic feeling that time is running out on not only their friends lives but their very own.